My sense reading this post is that it gestures at a framework for assessing the impact of political action that is widely endorsed in EA and that I like, but to make it actionable one needs the empirical detail to show competitive gains for particular examples. [ETA: I see on your own blog that you are going to follow up with a post trying to do that, which I will look forward to along with Ben Kuhn!] Also, congratulations on starting posting, it’s always great to see more thoughtful pieces like this.
I don’t think ‘collective action’ is really an issue stopping EAs from prioritizing protests. Charitable donations have the same problem, as a given $10 donation is very unlikely to make the difference between an extra malaria bednet distribution or not (which might costs hundreds of thousands of dollars). When I give $10/n the cost of the distribution I have a 1/n chance of having n times the impact, so the expected value of my donation is unaffected by the chunkiness/collective action. I basically need to know about the returns on large amounts of marginal funds and can then consider what the scaled-down share for my contribution would be.
For protests I don’t think anyone has a problem with asking what going from 100,000 to 400,000 protesters would do, and evaluating the individual decision to protest in terms of its scaled share. But to be convincing you have to actually show your work that the returns on protesting really are competitive with the opportunity cost of time (e.g. earning and donating some money, studying to advance your career and ability to get things done, doing malaria research, resting up after all of the above).
Some of the points that I think could be engaged with to make the OP case more concrete:
Police in the U.S. kill perhaps 1,000 people each year, and perhaps 300-400 African-Americans; in 2014 GiveWell moved $9.5 million to AMF, enough to save thousands of lives, plus twice that to deworming and cash transfer charities
EA donors numbered at most in the thousands (even counting all GiveWell donors), a far smaller movement
The human lives saved by GiveWell classic top charities were all African, and not only powerfully express support for the idea that black lives matter, but that they do across national borders
If the tens of millions of person-hours spent on the protests were spent at minimum wage jobs and the proceeds donated, then tens of thousands of African lives would have been saved; if one can earn higher wages or contribute in other scarce ways, the opportunity cost will be larger still
The protests were enabled by funding to organizing groups, e.g. George Soros spent over $33 million funding protests; we can compare the impacts of the total spending on such funding to the impacts of spending those same funds elsewhere
One could instead campaign, or fund (which will be much more productive in terms of campaigning produced for many people) political or policy work on issues like increasing immigration from poor countries or foreign aid that address the billions of people in absolute poverty, and the millions who die from preventable disease, war, and malnutrition abroad; time and funds spent on any given protest must be compared against the best alternatives we can find
Because of such considerations the value of different kinds of political involvement likely vary by many times, and the vast majority will be much less effective than the most
Groups like GiveWell and the Open Philanthropy Project have and are investigating political and policy work, and have even made grants, such as to the Center for Global Development and even some specifically criminal justice reform organizations; Giving What We Can has highlighted donation opportunities for funding political advocacy for more and more efficient foreign aid in the past
Effective altruism is itself a fast-growing social movement one can campaign for in various ways, which has been doubling in scope every year or so for some time now, and is already saving multiple times as many lives as could be saved by preventing every police shooting in America; campaigning for effective altruism has so far been highly effective
If the growth of effective altruism can continue for even a few more doublings and then level off while still accounting for only a tiny portion of rich country charitable giving it could save millions of lives
See this post by Benjamin Todd: Earning to give is systemic change
Also see Nobody is perfect, everything is commensurable, which I see also discussed the police shooting protests compared to malaria charity
Effective altruists are funding the investigation of political advocacy to find areas and interventions that are more effective than what they are doing
“It is far from rare that collective action changes the world. If we can contribute meaningfully to it – which if we cannot do as an individual activist, we almost certainly can as an organizer – we have no choice but to do so.”
I strongly object to this. Everyone could use up every waking hour of every day protesting, writing letters, going door-to-door, etc for a thousand different causes. They can’t all simultaneously exert an obligatory demand on our time, especially when they are worse than what we would otherwise doing.
You could make a case that while the opportunities available for political activism for cause X on a political day aren’t competitive with the best alternatives, on certain unusual occasions, e.g. on election days (moreso in primary elections, etc) the impact of an hour of time on political activity is many times greater than usual, and that might temporarily ‘push it over the top.’ But the political campaigns discussed in the OP occur over multi-year time scales, and plausibly benefit from the cash one could earn in an hour more than from an hour holding a sign. And in any case, one should still be able to pass basic checks on the empirical plausibility of an effect large enough to make this a competitive use of altruistic time.
All that said, people don’t have to be maximally effective or maximally altruistic all the time, and if they want to do something that is still good but far from maximally so, I don’t object. But to claim that at present margins a focus on “donating to effective charities...risks doing far less good for overlooking more traditional forms of protest” calls for at least a rough empirical sketch of how that could be true, ideally for some particular examples.
I have some old posts reviewing the rough probabilities of votes swinging elections, the cost of buying votes with donations. But you need a lot more to get to the point of thinking protests are a winning move, e.g.:
The value of the advocated metric of change
The likelihood of different sorts of change
The kind of policy change one might get and its efficacy to compare to alternative activities
The impact of things like books, films, academic research, think tanks, media articles, lobbying, and many other channels of advocacy that may be better (some of which are actual contributions to knowledge, e.g. RCTs showing success for an aid intervention are powerful lobbying tools in getting public funds to those interventions, economic analysis of immigration is an important factor in debates there, etc)
Thanks for your helpful reply. Will take note of this in my response.